Free schools are failing to serve the neediest children in their areas (IoE research)

Just on cue, the institute of Education has released the first findings from research into the intakes of free schools. The full details haven’t yet been published but the outcomes of the research seem unambiguous. It finds that “Free schools are failing to serve the neediest children in their areas. Schools in this flagship Government programme are opening in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, but are taking fewer poor children (those receiving free meals) than the other local schools.”

In more detail, the research says that:

The government’s anticipation that free schools would emerge in disadvantaged neighbourhoods is, on average, vindicated. On average they are in areas where the proportion of pupils on free meals is above average.

However, critics’ concerns that the schools might become socially selective are also supported. Fewer pupils actually attending the free schools were eligible for FSM than was the average for their neighbourhoods.

In terms of prior achievement, there is a marked difference at primary level: the free schools children have a distinctly higher Foundation Stage Profile mean score (0.33) than elsewhere in their neighbourhoods and in the rest of England where it is close to zero.

It also found that the proportion of ethnic minority pupils in primary free schools was well above their proportion in either the neighbourhoods of the school or in the country as a whole.

Why this should be so is of course the key question. The “I” paper led on the story and put on it the spin that free schools were “cherry picking” better off pupils. An fact checking organisation called “Full Fact”, has disputed this saying that “schools don’t have to actively “pick” children from certain backgrounds in order to end up with more of them in their classrooms. It might be that parents of children eligible for free school meals are less likely to put in applications.”

This has been seized on by the usual suspects like the New Schools Network and Policy Exchange as a way of downplaying the actual findings of the research.

It is true that at present the researchers aren’t saying why free school intakes are as they are. In some cases I’ve little doubt that schools are manipulating their admission criteria to cherry pick the students that they want … like the Bristol school that wasn’t actually located in its own catchment area.

But most have more subtle ways. There is always religion of course which always serves as a good proxy for middle class or at least for the keen and aspirant. Then there’s the expensive uniform. Or the “aptitude for music” scam. But just as common is the marketing pitch adopted by too many schools:

“The school aims to offer an academically rigorous education. We strongly believe that central London, and Marylebone in particular, is crying out for a high quality state secondary school that offers a traditional education for boys. We see parents despairing of finding such a school, and many of them leaving the area to live near the grammar schools.” (Marylebone Boys School)

“MCS will bring the values and advantages of a private school education to young people by providing a highly academic curriculum.” (Michaela School)

“Objectives: 100 per cent of pupils pass at least 8 GCSEs at grade C or above, including Maths, English, English Literature, at least two Sciences and a Foreign Language and persuade every pupil to stay on in the Sixth Form and do a sufficiently demanding course of Sixth Form study to progress to a good university”. (West London Free School)

“Like the West London Free School Secondary, the primary provides children with a classical liberal education, focusing on a core of academic subjects complemented by art, music, drama and competitive sport. It offers children the kind of experience they would get at an old-fashioned prep school.”

How surprising is it that schools like these don’t attract intakes that are typical of their area? Cherry picking comes in many forms.